Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Toasting, Wife-Hunting, Smugglers ..

.. and a submarine base.

Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, it seems like a distant memory now. Everything has reverted back to a script I can read without having to decipher and I am in a country that is geared more towards tourists. But what can I say, I loved Ukraine exactly because it wasn't the most easy place to get around; the challenge was there and it has been conquered. It is always a good feeling.

I had a great time as well. Even though I complained last time that the "East" is disappearing, it can still be found there. Some things die hard, and others which were repressed, come back to the surface. Soviet monuments and Lenin statues are still seen and not torn down as they have been in the other Warsaw pact countries. And Orthodox churches are plentiful in number and users, and they take it seriously too.

So way back when (actually it was only a bit over a week ago) I was in Kiev (or Kyiv to use the correct Ukrainian translation, Kiev is the Russian spelling). Kiev was very busy and modern, but ultra cool. I tried to do some touristy things, but I stuggled with the search to find Chicken Kiev, so instead I had to settle for some museums and an old ancient Monastery, with some mumified monks in caves.

My personal favourite though was the still functioning Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Now this is where Soviet pride stills comes into its own. Huge and grandiose with a giant titanium woman perched on top with sword and shield in either hand. The displays were all in Russian but it was so visual with personal artifacts that reading it was not really necessary. What I gathered though from it all was the Nazis were nasty and the Soviets good.

Even more interesting I thought was the nearby, Museum of "In Foreign Wars". Here we had homage to wars in Mongolia, Vietnam, Korea, Angola and Afghanistan. What I thought funny though was that Soviets mostly started all those wars. Not sure if that fact was fully explained or not. Outside you could climb over some military hardware if you felt so inclined, lots of Soviet tanks and even a Hind gunship (that one from Rambo 3) which kids were climbing into and getting their photo taken.

Look mum a gunship

One of the best bits for me personally about Kiev was the Metro system. Just like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, this is how Metros should work. Pay 50 kopecks (or Crow Pecks, about 20 Aus cents) and you can travel anywhere on the system. The trains come every two minutes and off you go. The Kiev system was cool, because it is actually the deepest in the world, a title I thought before was bestowed upon St Petes. But no, one station in Kiev is actually 120m below the surface. Now what I am trying to say is that you should see the escalators for these stations. You ride these monsters for 5 minutes and they would have to be 150 metres long. I would not want to fall down one.

Escalator monster

And so anyway, after my Metro fetish I caught the train south to the Crimea. That funny shaped peninsular into the Black Sea, mainly famous in the English world for a war a 150 years ago, but for the Russians it is holiday central. I decided to try and avoid the bulk of the Russian invasion to the beaches and go for the history instead. So I went to the little town of Balaklava, just south of Sevastopol. It was here in the Crimean war that the British famously launched the Battle of Balaclava and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Of course you can't find anything relating to it now and there are certainly no monuments and locals would never have even heard of it.

But luckily there is something to do there that the locals know about. The former secret submarine base of the Soviet Black Sea fleet. Now this was cool. I got to go on a one on one tour with an English speaking guide (I think I was the only non Ukrainian/Russian for that week) through the underground complex and see where the submarines would come in through a tunnel from the sea and be serviced inside. Then past the massive 20 tonne blast doors (they built this thing to withstand a nuclear strike of 5 times Hiroshima) and then into the really secret area where they assembled the nuclear warheads which were loaded onto the subs. This had all been operational up until 10 years ago, and now the government has grandiose ideas of turning it into a big museum complex. Luckily I still got to see it in a "raw" state.

Trolley for nukes

And so a train to Odessa. Ah the trains, what can I say, but I think the CIS countries have the best system in the world. The soviets had one thing worked out and that was railway transport. Thankfully Ukraine has inherited that legacy. They may be a tad slow, but you get to board at night and in the morning you are in a new city hundreds of kilometres away. And as a traveller you get the added benefit of getting to meet the locals. This can also be a bit of a curse if like on my leg to Odessa, newly met compartment occupier Vlad decides to get the vodka bottle and then makes me and the other newly met pair of Sergei and Natasha toast until we finish the first bottle and then almost a second procured from somewhere.

It creeps up on you drinking vodka neat. You think you are fine for a long time and then suddenly you realise important motor skills have gone. Unfortunately as well the train pulled into Odessa at 5:30am and this meant the lights were on an hour before. My head was shot and seedy would have been a good term, but Vlad and Sergei in true Ukrainian spirit decided they needed to finally finish the second bottle and toasted away before the sun came up. I politely declined their offer to join in.

Finally Odessa. A nice town with some great accommodation. Not a hell of a lot of sights, apart from really the Potemkin Steps (famous for the climatic scene with baby pram in the cinematic masterpiece, the Battleship Potemkin), but I was not really bothered it was good to chill out for a few days. Which is what I did, at a backpacker hostel in the centre of the city run funnily enough by a guy from Queensland. A true blue oka bloke, with no connection to Ukraine until about 6 months ago. Now he is loving it and looks like he will be in the for the long haul. You see I also discovered another type of traveller to the Ukraine, the Wife Hunter. Quite amusing seeing guys from England, the US and Australia come all that way to meet women they have "met" through Internet wife finding sites.

After Odessa I did two night trains in a row. In hindsight it was a bit much, but hey it was actually costing half as much to catch a night train and go 600 km, than to stay in a hostel bed. I still can't believe it was so cheap, US$10. Try that anywhere else in the world for the same standard. Brilliant.

Red star engine

Anyway I went back to the very west of the country which I had originally bypassed and saw Lviv. A full day striding around this beautiful old town. It used to part of Poland, so they have inherited the same legacy as Krakow. And then a night train south to the border with Romania. From here I negotiated some way to get across the border. I was ready to move on, even though there were a couple of other places that I would have liked to seen in that area, I needed to keep moving because time was running out.

What transport I found, instead of a planned bus, was a private car filling up with four other passengers to head to the big town over the border. It was fairly cheap (even though some cheap-arse Polish backpackers were not willing to pay the US$10 and were preparing to hitchhike instead. Those Poles want value for money. Some which were in the Crimea at the same time as me were not even prepared to pay 6 Euro a night in a hostel!). So I headed to the border with two Babushkas, another guy and the driver.

Over the Ukrainian border was easy, although again they studied my passport forever. Then to the Romanian side. This was harder, especially for the poor bloke sitting next to me in the back. Customs pulled his bags out and found he had decided to try his luck at a bit of cigarette smuggling. Two Minute noodle packets with noodles removed and two packs of cigarettes inside. A loaf of bread with its innards removed and more cigarettes stashed. Same with a bottle of water and boxes of "chocolates". The customs guys were having fun and one who could speak English came over with the loaf of bread and joked, "do you want to see Ukrainian bread". Ah good times. The guy obviously did not complete his journey into Romania, so we left without him.

And so here I am, another new country and already I am having some unique experiences in only the one day that I have been here. But that is for later.

No comments: